Your Ultimate Guide to Cross Country Skiing

Colorado has been a destination for winter sports and vacations for generations.  When you combine the altitude, the latitude, and the amount of snowfall it receives each year, you get the sweet spot in the center of the continental United States when it comes to winter sports and activities.  From dog sledding to snowshoeing, Alpine skiing to snowmobiling, once the white stuff starts to accumulate on the mountains, Colorado is open for business to winter sports enthusiasts.

Salida is at the heart of the Rocky Mountains, being just a few minutes drive from some world-class Alpine skiing slopes, it also reaps the benefits of being so near some unbelievably pristine public lands as well.  Natives of Salida are a work-hard/play-hard crew that is known for year-round outdoor sports. From rafting and kayaking to rock climbing and mountain biking in the summer months, once the snow begins to fly, the bikes and boats come off the car racks and up go the skis and snowboards.

For those of us who enjoy being fully immersed in the outdoor experience, such as hikers and backpackers, we don’t have to wait until Spring to keep enjoying the outdoors. If you are wondering how you might enjoy the wonders of winter without a lift-ticket or a snowmobile, you might consider cross-country skiing.

What is Cross-Country Skiing

Cross-country skiing has been around for a long time.  Some of the first Nordic skis date back thousands of years.  They were developed in neolithic times for deep snow conditions, which were common to the end of the Ice Age in Central and Northern Europe. The early models were made from wood and like today’s modern cross-country skis, they were often accompanied by the use of poles held in the hand for stability and added traction.  Most cross-country skiing requires a ski attached to each foot, usually with a special type of ski boot which clips into the ski with a binding. Older three-pin bindings are common, which incorporate an extended flap at the toe of each boot which is clamped into place by an external spring and fastener, and set with the pins which extend into the sole of the boot.  But the fastening system has evolved into one that uses a boot more similar to an Alpine ski boot and binding, which clips easily in and out with the push of a button.

Either system sets the toe in place and allows the heels to come off the ski with each motion of the foot. Though a shuffling motion, the majority of your weight is centered on the ski you are stepping off with as the other foot glides forward without as much pressure.  This propels you forward. The length of the skis helps keep you higher in the snow as you move along, and due to the narrow width, you will be able to carve through powder and even packed snow with less resistance. The ski poles are placed in opposition to each foot as you push off, with the right pole being planted and pushed as the left foot pushes against the ground.  This motion creates an exaggerated way of normal walking.

Turns are done by re-positioning the feet and also by pushing outward with the heels and pointing with the toes for smaller direction adjustments.  The method can be tricky and take some getting used to, but with practice (and a few falls) you will begin to find your stride. Turns are perhaps the most technical element to master, and a variety of books, YouTube videos, and even some one-on-one instruction can help you get the hang of it.  Otherwise, it is more a trial-and-error type of sport which will take practice to do well.

To Wax or Not Wax

Cross-country skis can work with wax or without.  Wax helps you fine tune your ski to the type of snow you will be encountering.  Different waxes have different freezing points, which can give you the edge with different types of snow.  Warmer weather means snow often builds up on the bottoms of your skis and can stop you in your tracks when trying to glide, colder snows might offer no resistance, leaving you spinning in your tracks.  Depending on the weather, wax can be used on flat-bottom or scaled waxless skis to help you navigate the weather conditions better.

Why ski?

Unlike downhill skiing, cross-country skiing is perhaps one of the more physically demanding of the winter sports.  A trip can have you burning around 400-800 calories per hour–depending on your build and speed. Not only is it a technical endeavor, which requires balance, cardio, physical strength, and coordination, but it can also be physically exhausting.  Keeping hydrated and not bottoming out with your caloric intake is important.

So what is the draw for this sibling of skiing that is so much different than letting gravity do most of the work and enjoying buttered rum drinks at the bottom of the hill?  For one thing, cross-country skis can take you nearly anywhere your feet can. Faster than snowshoes (especially when traveling downhill), and capable of supporting more weight, cross-country skiing appeals to hikers and backpackers alike.  When it comes to crossing into the wilderness, if you are willing to break trail, you can go wherever your skis will take you.

Groomed trails also offer an easier experience for lower-level skiers.  Many resorts and public lands have ski trails (more often than not the same trails used for hiking in the summer months) which can take you places that give you an entirely different perspective in the winter.  In spite of the physical demands and technical skills required to master cross-country skiing, it is a relatively inexpensive sport which can be done anywhere you find snow, an open trail, and a desire to see the sights.  Moving at your own pace and comfort level can provide hours of enjoyment for any skill level.

Hazards

Cross Country skiing is not without its hazards. Skiers should be prepared when attempting this, as well as any other outdoor activity.  Keeping an emergency kit on hand is essential, as is having plenty of water, dressing in layers, and communicating with others so they know where you are going and when to expect you back.

  • Avalanche: In the mountains, avalanches are extremely dangerous.  Be sure to check with local authorities to see what the current avalanche danger is and which areas to avoid.  Classes in surviving an avalanche are also available from outfitters and equipment suppliers.
  • Getting lost: Be familiar with your area, and also keep a map and compass on hand.  Cellular reception can be spotty in remote areas.
  • Dehydration:  It cannot be stressed enough how important it is to stay hydrated.
  • Caloric consumption: Exhaustion can set in and become deadly if not prepared for.
  • Injuries: Outdoor adventure sports can result in injuries.  Since cross-country skiing can take you to remote places, be sure you have the ability to administer first aid in situations where you are far from help.  It only takes a moment for something to go wrong, no matter how careful you are.

With some practice, good planning, and some basic know-how, you can begin your own winter adventures with cross-country skiing.  Contact us to find the best accommodations in the Salida area for your wintertime adventure trip as well as tips on great places to explore on your time off.

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Share the Salida Love!